Truth and fiction in the circus of sports business
One of us was out walking the dog the other morning and started humming the Fleetwood Mac song “Little Lies.” It has a famous earworm lyric that goes: “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. Tell me lies.” We immediately thought that would make a great place to start a discussion aimed at all the sport management students who are starting classes or seeking careers.
While the song is nothing special, the two of us found its meaning (as applied to our lives) relevant. We know this industry, and like others, can’t help but watch those “sweet little lies” playing out:
There are enough jobs for everyone majoring in sport management, sport marketing, sport analytics, sport finance, sport communications, sport media, sport psychology, sport sponsorship and sport event promotions. The fact is, there aren’t. In fact, many graduates will not work in this industry. Some will dabble with multiple internships and entry-level jobs, but then — for the fortunate ones who developed needed skills — they will seek the safer (and often higher-paying) ground of financial services, marketing, bartending and construction.
We’re revamping our food menu and beverage options in venue to give our fans more selections at a better price. Another lie. Sure, there are a few highly communicated examples of major venues lowering prices (e.g., Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta), but most venues will raise prices while seeking ways to squeeze more margin out of F&B. We’re not being critical of this action as, in most cases, clubs exist to make their owners wealthier.
Sport is responding well to millennials, Gen Zers and Next Gens and fully understands those demos have shorter attention spans and want more engaging content plus shorter seasons and more meaningful games. Another fib. Although many decision makers talk about it, only the slightest changes have received approval (e.g., intentional walks in baseball). The result? Ticket strategies on both the primary and secondary markets are increasingly focused on per-game yield and per capita data.
Longtime members of the industry will know the above “lies” are not intended to suggest sport practitioners are evil or purveyors of great deceptions. In fact, we’re quite pleased to see sport management execs acting like folks in every other business. That’s our collective reality. Modern sport is obligated to the bottom line and the needs of its investors.
We’re even getting better at this. The NFL now hires technology people from Apple and Google. The NHL plays outdoor and foreign hockey games to considerable financial benefit. The International Olympic Committee continues to revise its bid structure for future Games in innovative ways.
Most sport organizations are building analytics teams and long ago started hiring social media specialists. Major brands — including the Yankees, Cowboys, Bruins and Clippers — are creating consumer demand by acting more like Coke and Nike. They are selling, promoting, encouraging and, on occasion, deceiving.
So, what are we saying?
Our first point, and one we stress to students daily, is to analyze closely everything you hear or read. And do it deeply. Question things and see if a “sweet little lie” is getting told. Stop acting like fans. This is not a fantasy league. To put things bluntly, as future sport industry employees they need to see that like any circus act, the stuff behind the scenes is rarely pretty.
Sports fans are spectators. They want to be entertained and distracted. They want to love their club, athlete, league or sport. Their avidity is meant for pleasure. It’s not a job.
For the rest of us, the ones who decided to work in this circus, we long ago put on the clown’s makeup, battled our way into the tent and then walked the high wire of media scrutiny and risky investments. We also learned that at the end of each day, someone young had to do the proverbial sweeping up. Someone had to pack up the wagons and get the “stars” to the next town.
The above thought process may seem jaded but it allowed us to reflect on our respective careers and see how almost every professional in the sport business achieved a dream of working in a field they love … a business sector others had hoped to enter but — for numerous reasons — didn’t. The ones who stayed bought into the “lie.”
So, are we, as educators, selling a dream? Is it any worse than the snowplow parents pushing their children toward athletic excellence? Is wanting to work in sports worse than trying to earn a college scholarship or get signed to a lucrative professional contract?
Well, the odds of making an NBA roster are certainly worse than working as a business professional in the NBA. Maybe that’s why so many universities showcase where their best alums have landed and how “so and so” is now the CMO of a pro team or executive VP for analytics. Maybe that’s why sport management programs brag about their placement rates. They want those hungry 17- and 18-year-olds to believe if they work hard, they can end up on the trapeze. Is that a sweet little lie?
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League. Norm O’Reilly is director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph and partner consultant at T1.